By now you’ve probably heard that eating too much red and processed meat is bad for you. Not only is it associated with increased rates of coronary heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, but there is also convincing evidence that red and processed meat can cause cancer. Given the negative health impacts, there have been calls for certain types of meat to be regulated similar to other carcinogens – such as tobacco or asbestos – or like other foods of public health concern – such as sugary drinks.
Like taxes on other products that can harm health, a health tax on red and processed meat could encourage consumers to make healthier choices. And our new research, which looks at the benefits of a health tax on red and processed meat has found that such as tax could prevent more than 220,000 deaths and save over US$40 billion globally in healthcare costs every year.
In our new study, colleagues from the International Food Policy Research Institute in the US, and the Oxford Martin School and the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford in the UK, analysed the impact of regulating red and processed meat consumption through a health tax on meat. We calculated so-called optimal tax levels that would account for the health costs of red and processed meat in close to 150 countries and regions around the world. So although consumers would still have the choice to eat red and processed meat, they would have to contribute to paying for treating the chronic diseases that its consumption is assumed to cause.
The higher prices on red and processed meat encourage dietary shifts to other, less harmful foods. Our results suggest that if the health taxes were introduced, consumption of processed meat would decline by about two portions per week in high-income countries and by 16% globally. Lower consumption of red and processed meat would lead to 220,000 less deaths a year from chronic disease – such as coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. It could also have positive knock-on effects on climate change and body weight.
We found that it could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by over a hundred million tonnes – mainly due to lower beef consumption. And it would also reduce levels of obesity by driving consumers to lower-calorie substitutions.
Tax revenues would amount to US$172 billion globally and cover 70% of the health costs that red and processed meat consumption puts on society. To fully cover the costs, the health taxes would have to be doubled and, in high-income countries, increase to 200% for processed meat.